‘The Dunwich Horror’ by H P Lovecraft,
in The Dunwich Horror and Other Stories.
Arcturus Books, 2022 (1929).
Published in 1929 when the author was nearly 40, this 1928 novella represents Lovecraft in his fully-fledged antiquarian horror mode, set in one of his preferred New England locales and in the university town of Arkham, Massachusetts. Sparsely settled as parts of Essex County were in the early 20th century, folks there kept pretty much to themselves, leading to some families becoming inbred. And then there’s this one branch of the Whateleys, consisting of the decidedly strange and reclusive Lavinia, her eccentric father known as Wizard Whateley, and her very strange infant Wilbur, father unknown.
The nearby settlement of Dunwich is spooked by odd lights and disturbing rumblings in and around Sentinel Hill, and by the strange foetid smells that emanate from the Whateley homestead. Still, Wizard Whateley pays out good gold for the succession of cattle that are led to the farm though, curiously, the herd never gets any larger.
But when building works at the farm change the house’s internal layout it rouses more than their mild interest, as does the rapid growth and precocious behaviour of young Wilbur, who shares his grandfather’s predilection for ancient arcane knowledge. That predilection leads Wilbur to consult old tomes in centres of academic excellence – including Arkham – but unfortunately his last visit to Arkham triggers a series of incidents soon known as the Dunwich Horror.
Those new to Lovecraft’s literary style may baulk at the first few pages, with its accumulation of adjectives and adverbs designed to set an atmosphere warning of horror to come: gorges and ravines of problematical depth … raucous, creepily insistent rhythms of stridently piping bullfrogs ... rotting gimbrel roofs … the broken-steepled church harbors the one slovenly mercantile establishment. But luckily the narrative proper soon gets going and we start to get a better understanding of why Dunwich and surrounds deserved its reputation as a place to be shunned.
Over the years since Wilbur’s birth in 1913 his atypical physical development has not only attracted notice locally but also further afield, as when for example he visits Dr Armitage, Miskatonic University’s librarian, and Armitage’s colleagues Professor Rice and Dr Morgan. The obscure and sinister volumes that Wilbur consults, and later the seemingly indecipherable notebooks he leaves behind, all provide clues to the secrets that the Whateleys have been concealing in their isolated home. Will the academics be able to deal with what they surmise is the extra-dimensional menace that emerges as the autumnal equinox of 1928 approaches?
This long short story, virtually a novelette, is regarded by aficionados as a key text in his Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos, introducing Massachusetts – particularly the Miskatonic river and, on its banks, the town of Arkham – as a nexus of latent horror and the scene of around a dozen of the author’s tales.
As a narrative The Dunwich Horror is more satisfying than many of Lovecraft’s works which I’ve read over the years: rather than the climax of the action being the final denouement (often when the terrified protagonist comes rudely face to face with the nameless but expected horror) there is instead a satisfying resolution as well as a final explanatory revelation.
This was surprisingly more of a pleasure to read than I was expecting from past experience. But then I am now a lot older, much less dismissive and, hopefully, a bit more appreciative of such pulp fiction than was my wont. Now if only those creepily insistent bull-frogs and, especially, whippoorwills could give it a rest…
Read for the #1929Club. Other 1929 titles reviewed here include Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own, the English translation of Hermann Hesse’s Steppenwolf, and Erich Kästner’s Emil and the Detectives ...
… also as a final celebration of this year’s Readers Imbibing Peril #RIPxvii
Advance notice: Witch Week is imminent! The schedule appears 30th October, with the first post due on All Hallows Eve.